Amar glances at his watch. Suhas notices and sings. “Inteha ho gayi intezaar ki. (This waiting is a trial.) Aayi na kuch khabar mere yaar ki. (There’s no sign of my friend.)”
Amar ignores him. The next moment Suhas nudges him and gestures to his right. A strikingly pretty teenager in a green and blue salwar kameez is walking towards them with a plastic Reliance Fresh shopping bag in her hand.
Suhas smirks at her.
“Hi Shalini, we—I— wondered whether you would come today.”
“Sorry I’m late.” She takes a thermos flask from one of the bags and three disposable plastic cups and pours steaming hot milky tea.
Suhas sips and rolls his eyes theatrically, “Oof, basundhi chai.”
“Is it too sweet?” she asks but she is looking at Amar.
“No, it’s perfect. Just like you.”
She blushes and opens a box filled to the brim with poha garnished with shredded coconut and chopped coriander.
None of them notice a tall dark masked man watching them. He edges away and makes a call on his cell phone.
8.45 pm, inside Raj’s hut
Raj and Suhas have just finished dinner—two pav-wadas each. The room is lit by a couple of candles because of an extended power-cut.
“When is mami returning, Amar?”
“Uncle’s teraavaa (thirteenth day of mourning) is on Saturday, so she should be back next Sunday.”
“And the karate class?”
Amar shrugged. “I plan to conduct the class tomorrow.”
“You are taking this swine flu too lightly. I bet no one turns up. And you must wear a mask.”
“To use your favorite Gabbar Singh quotation: “Jo dar gaya samjho mar gaya. (One who is afraid is as good as dead.)”
“You are safe from swine flu; you already have mule flu.” Suhas adjusts the mask around his face, opens the door and steps outside.
9 pm, outside Raj’s hut
Suhas turns on his torch and walks rapidly towards his hut, which is a hundred yards away. The next moment, two men with iron rods charge at him from behind. Suhas hears them, half-turns, cries out as they strike him, falls. The men run towards a motorcycle parked a short distance away. Amar rushes out with his torch, sees Suhas on the ground, blood flowing from his head. He hears a motorcycle being kick-started, points his torch towards it and sees Datta and Pandu, Raj Shinde’s thugs, racing away. Suhas groans and Amar rushes towards him.
9.15 pm, outside Pune Railway Station
Datta, the same man who was spying on Shalini at Juna Bazar, is talking into his cell phone.
“Sorry, saheb, we hit his friend Suhas by mistake. It’s not our fault, saheb, there were no lights outside and he came out of Amar’s hut wearing a mask.”
The voice on the other end asked, “Is he dead?”
“Yes, saheb. We both hit him on the head. Very hard”
“Did anyone see you?”
Datta hesitated, then grimaced. “I think Amar saw us, saheb.”
“You good-for-nothing bastards…”
“Sorry saheb, we are leaving for the farmhouse right now.”
“Don’t call me from your cell phone, you dumb fool. Call from a phone booth and only if needed.”
Datta nods grimly at Pandu and they both walk into the railway station.
9.30 pm, Sassoon Hospital, Emergency ward doctor’s notes
Patient, male, 20 years old, multiple head injuries, pulse 130 per minute, BP 90/50 mm Hg, unconscious, not responding to painful stimuli, pupils dilated and sluggish… Diagnosis: Severe head injuries with multiple fractures of skull
10 pm, Sassoon Hospital, Emergency Ward
Amar is giving his statement to the hospital police constable.
“Yes, I recognized the assailants. They are Pandu and Datta and they work for Raj Shinde…
“I don’t know their full names…
“I don’t know why they attacked Suhas…
“No, Suhas has no enmity with Raj Shinde…
“Suhas lives alone near my home. His father died in a road accident 12 years ago and his mother died last year of cancer.”
“Suhas sells gym equipment at Juna Bazar and to various small gyms. We are both final year BA students. He planned… plans to give MPSC and IAS exams.”
10.30 pm, Sassoon Hospital, Neurology Ward
Suhas is lying unconscious, his head bandaged. He is on an IV drip. Amar is sitting next to him, gripping his hand, watching the IV bottle, watching Suhas.
17 August 2009, 1 am, Sassoon Hospital, Neurology Ward
Amar has dozed off next to Suhas’s bed. He hears Suhas say, “Amar, my friend, my brother, thank you for everything. It’s time to say goodbye.” He awakens with a start. “Was it a dream?” He notices that Suhas is not breathing. He rushes to call the nurse.
3 am, Sassoon Hospital, Neurology Ward,
A young resident doctor, approaches Amar “Sorry, we couldn’t save him…”
6 am, Bund Garden police station
“Namaste, Amar saab, I am PSI Rashid Khan. I know you well because my daughter is a student of your Karate class. Please accept my condolence at the death of your friend. We need your help to arrest his murderers.”
“Sir, I have been thinking about this and I feel I was their target and not Suhas.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I received a call on my mobile at about 6 o’clock yesterday evening warning me to stop meeting Shalini or I would be sorry.”
“Who was it?”
“He didn’t say. It may have been Datta.”
“Hmm. Who’s Shalini?”
“She’s Raj Shinde’s daughter. He is the dada of the Juna Bazar area. All the Juna Bazar stall-holders have to pay him rent every month. Last month, Suhas and I decided to stop paying him because he doubled the charges.”
“Isn’t he Bhausaheb Gaikwad’s man?”
“He was but when Bhausaheb lost the Corporation elections he felt Raj had betrayed him. So far, Raj hasn’t been able to mollify him. He has been forced to stop his matka and country liquor business. Perhaps that’s why he increased the Juna Bazar charges.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how do you know his daughter?”
“Raj Shinde’s house is close to my place, Shalini and I go to the same college, we are both interested in reading…”
“I see. I assume Raj is not exactly pleased about her meeting you.”
“We haven’t discussed it so far.”
PSI Khan smiled grimly. “It seems I’ll have to discuss it with him.”
9 am, Crematorium
Amar lights Suhas’s funeral pyre. Only a handful of people have arrived to pay their last respects. Among them is Shivaji Marathe, corporator of Juna Bazar area. He is dressed in a spotless white khadi kurta-pyjama and his lips are stained with pan. He clasps Amar’s shoulder. “Beta, don’t worry, we will make sure his murderers are punished.”
9.45 am, Crematorium
Amar’s cell phone rings. “Hello, this is Raj Shinde…”
10 am, Raj Shinde’s house
PSI Khan to Raj Shinde: “I am arresting you for criminal conspiracy in Suhas Wagh’s murder.”
11 am, College canteen
Amar and Shalini are seated at a corner table. Shalini is in tears and Amar puts his arm around her.
12 noon, Pune-Mumbai old highway
A car drives a few hundred metres into the forest along the highway. The man at the wheel opens the boot and dumps Datta and Pandu’s dead bodies. He reverses the car and returns to Pune.
1 pm, Police lockup
Raj Shinde is being interrogated by Rashid Khan. “I am totally innocent. I think Bhausaheb is trying to frame me. He must have bribed Datta and Pandu to assault Amar.”
3 pm, Police lockup
Amar and Shalini have come to meet Raj Shinde. He is haggard and red-eyed. “See, nothing is more valuable to me than Shalini. I swear on her head that I had nothing to do with Suhas’s murder. As I told you on the phone, I didn’t know that you and Shalini were friends until today…”
4 pm, Bhausaheb’s office
Bhausaheb to Rashid Khan: “Raj Shinde is perfectly capable of murdering anyone. I have no contact with him since the past four months…
“I know Datta works for Raj Shinde but I have never spoken to him…
“I was in Mumbai with my family since the last two days and have returned today afternoon for a party meeting…
“I came alone, my family is still in Mumbai. I plan to return to Mumbai tomorrow.”
6 pm, Police station
Rashid Khan to Amar. “Yes, the threatening phone-call to you was from Datta Mandke’s cell phone. We have asked for his phone records.”
7 pm, Police station
Shivaji Marathe to Rashid Khan: “The public is demanding an answer. Has Raj Shinde confessed yet? I have heard that the police is being too soft on him.”
“Don’t worry, corporator saab, our investigations are progressing in the right direction. Now that you are here, I can take your invaluable help in this case. Do you know Raj Shinde?”
“Everyone knows Raj is a goonda, calls himself the king of Juna Bazar. He used to be the right-hand man of Bhausaheb, who is a even bigger crook. The public finally revolted against their goondagiri and elected me to get rid of them. So far, the police has been very soft on them. You are known to be an upright officer. You have cracked the case by arresting Raj Shinde. The public is very happy with you.”
“Thank you, corporator saab. Public support is always welcome. An eye-witness had identified the assailants, Datta and Pandu. They work for Raj Shinde.”
“Everyone knows Datta does all of Raj’s dirty work.”
“But Raj denies any involvement in the assault and murder of Suhas. He says Bhausaheb may have framed him.”
“So the thieves are falling apart. You should arrest Bhausaheb also.”
“All in good time, saab. Datta and Pandu are both absconding. We found their motorbike at the Railway station. Do you or your supporters have any information about them?”
“I have heard about this rascal Datta but I have never met him or Pandu.”
“That’s interesting corporator saab because we have got his cell phone records. The last call he made 15 minutes after assaulting Suhas was to you. Do you want me to read the transcript of the call?”
Shivaji Marathe stares at Rashid Khan, his eyes broadcasting his shock. For once, he is at a complete loss of words.
10 pm, Police station
Amar and Raj Shinde are sitting at Rashid Khan’s table.
“Marathe has given a full confession. He gave Datta the supari to kill Amar knowing that Raj would be the prime suspect. Then he killed Datta and Pandu at his farmhouse and got rid of their bodies so that the trail would not lead to him. We will be going with him tomorrow morning to get the bodies and the murder weapon.”
Raj folds his hands “Thank you, Inspector. I thought I was doomed.”
“You should thank Amar. He gave me the idea to ask for the cell phone records.”
Raj turned towards Amar, “I have a lot to thank you for.”
Amar has a far-away look in his eyes. “We both owe our lives to Suhas. I’m sure he is watching over us.”
18 August 2009, 10 am, Raj Shinde’s house
Raj, Amar and Shalini are seated at the table having tea, poha and upma.
“I promised Lord Ganesh that if he got me out of this crisis, I would become a good person. Like I was before Shalini’s mother died. When she died, it shook my faith in Ganesh and I did all sorts of wrong things. No more.”
“Baba, I am sure mother will be so happy today and I am too.”
“So am I, father-in-law,” says Amar but not out loud.
(-- Rohi Shetty was a participant in the weeklong creative writing workshop held in July 2009, facilitated by artist-writer, Dipalle Parmar.)